Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Elliott and Hanning, Peter Clarke and Lord Howard of Rising.

Cameron: Practically a Conservative by Francis Elliott and James Hanning

With the apparent failure of a centre-right realignment and the growing strength of the Labour Party, questions are multiplying over David Cameron’s inability to create a new story for British politics. Jason Cowley, writing in the New Statesman this week, appraises the timely arrival of an updated version of Francis Elliott’s and James Hanning’s biography of David Cameron, first published in 2007 – a book that "will surely become the standard Cameron biography". It is a narrative of power where "again and again, Cameron’s charm is noticed and remarked upon". The old Etonian’s charm is such that Cameron’s rise is recounted by Elliott and Hanning "with hushed, excited reverence, which at times pushes the book closer towards hagiography".  The authors’ failure is most apparent in their attempt to convey something of Cameron’s inner life. In this regard, Elliott and Hanning may not be entirely at fault. Cowley observes that not only has Cameron never published anything of note, and that "gives an impression of knowing as much as he wants to know". In an age of profound political instability, Cameron remains dangerously "caught, even trapped, within a class and tradition". Such constraints, Cowley concludes, mean that the Cameron story "may not have the happy ending for which he and his party would have wished".

John Dugdale, writing in the Guardian, also notes how the update brings forward a very different story. The contrast is stark: "Before, he appeared poised to be embraced by the electorate, having escaped [his] gilded background; now he seems still detrimentally shaped by it, his failings as PM often attributable to an establishment mindset and image shared by his inner circle". The authors, "notably sharp on Cameron’s botched election campaign, uncertain EU policy and disastrous wooing of Rupert Murdoch’s executives", spare little criticism. It is the analysis of these fresh crises, writes Boyd Tonkin in the Independent, that shows how "'Flashman', the easily-rattled top dog, can lack drive and focus".

Enoch at 100: a Re-evaluation of the Life, Politics and Philosophy of Enoch Powell edited by Lord Howard of Rising

The qualities of Enoch Powell are re-evaluated in this commemorative collection of his speeches and essays by contemporary commentators. As a body of material, it offers an exploration of the rhetorical leitmotifs of the far right. These motifs are apparent in the "Rivers of Blood" speech of April 1968, which described a situation of such excessive immigration that could, Powell claimed, only be solved by non-white repatriation. The speech "made Powell a hero, particularly to the lumpenproletariat, astonished and gratified to discover a person of culture and refinement prepared to echo their fouler thoughts," writes Vernon Bogdanor in the New Statesman; "it was, in truth, unforgivable". Bogdanor examines how the rhetoric of persecution in turn gave birth to the right-wing trope of the liberal conspiracy to close down discussion of immigration. If so, the continuous political manipulation of immigration by the Conservatives can only mean that "the liberal conspiracy has not been very successful". For Bogdanor, Powell was "one of the 20th century’s false prophets", his "predictions of ethnic conflict – indeed, of civil war – have proved spectacularly wrong".

Charles Moore, writing in the Telegraph, finds that the prophet still has something to say. Despite the inflammatory oratory, Powell’s "commitment to the British nation state, and above all to the Parliament which embodied it, made him pay relentless attention to the visceral issues which lay behind the questions of the day". The book also sets out "his groundbreaking ideas about what causes inflation, his bold approach to energy policy". Moore sees the juxtaposition of both essays and speeches as offering a valuable insight into Powell’s powers of argument and expression: "He could think boldly about a huge range of subjects, and then argue about them with intellectual force and high emotion". Burning through the collection is Powell’s "strangely compelling tone of voice – the odd combination of eccentric professor and mass orator, of almost archaic obscurity and devastating clarity". This judgement is echoed by Adrian Hilton for the Daily Mail: "It becomes apparent to those who do not already know that Enoch Powell was, like Lear, a man more sinned against than sinning."

Mr Churchill's Profession: Statesman, Orator, Writer by Peter Clarke

Peter Clarke’s book, an examination of the relationship between Winston Churchill’s literary output and his political career, enters a field of study where newcomers "need either to bring with them a reputation already made or else to happen upon a theme that has so far escaped notice," writes Douglas Hurd in the New Statesman. For Hurd, Clarke’s sharp research happily fulfils both criteria. In Clarke’s exploration of Churchill’s inheritance from his parents, the intersections between the political and the literary come readily enough. Churchill’s 1906 biography of his father, written while MP for Oldham, "was an openly partisan attempt to rebuild his father’s reputation as a Tory democrat". The narrative is familiar, but Clarke maintains a focus "on the relationship of Churchill with the publishers who moved from excitement to despair and back again as they watched, almost helplessly, the ups and downs of the author’s love affair with history – more particularly with his own page in that story". Churchill’s last work, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, written during the 1930s and eventually published in the 1950s, provoked an argument between the author and his publishers, inevitably fuelled by Churchill’s "determination to include in the History as much as possible of the traditional accounts on which he had been brought up".

Maya Jasanoff, writing in the Wall Street Journal, is most struck by Clarke’s focus on the financial aspect of Churchill’s writing career, "for a book about books, 'Mr Chuchill’s Profession' has rather more to say about those of the accounting variety than those filled with prose". But Richard Vinen, writing in the Independent, is sharpest on picking up on how the Anglophone world took shape in Churchill’s mind. Although Clarke denies that Churchill was an Anglo-Saxon supremacist, Vinen maintains that "race played a large role in his thinking. Even before the First World War, he talked in terms of 'Russian power, the yellow races, the Teutonic alliance and the English-speaking peoples'". But Vinen’s main problem with Clarke’s study is that it offers "neither a clear synthesis nor an original piece of research". An eye on the market, as well as Clarke’s reliance on reputation, makes the book seem "rather like many of Winston Churchill’s," Vinen concludes.

False prophet: Enoch Powell in 1978 (Photograph: Getty Images)
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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood